Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is one of the lawmakers who offered advice on the equity initiative.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is one of the lawmakers who offered advice on the equity initiative. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Democratic Lawmakers Offer Advice for White House Racial Equity Initiative

Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., stress that agencies must take a data-based approach to ensure underserved communities do not encounter barriers to access federal programs.

A pair of House Democrats on Friday urged the Biden administration to take a data-driven approach to its efforts to improve racial equity across the federal government, which in many cases will require agencies to expand their information collection efforts.

On President Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order calling for a “whole-of-government” effort to advance racial equity at federal agencies and to remove barriers faced by underserved communities in accessing federal programs. The order also rescinded a Trump administration policy banning some forms of diversity and inclusion job training offered by federal agencies and contractors.

On Friday, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., sent a letter to Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young praising the effort, and providing advice on how the White House can ensure the initiative is successful.

In short, the lawmakers wrote that in order to be successful, agencies will need to make significant improvements in the demographic data they collect on recipients of federal programs.

“To ensure the success of the Biden-Harris administration’s agenda, racial equity must be central to decision-making across the federal government,” they wrote. “This sweeping objective will require the collection of data that aligns with an up-to-date understanding of people’s identities and that reflects how diverse groups are differently situated. Most federal agencies do not yet collect this type of data.”

Young herself has acknowledged the need for agencies to do more on the data side to identify programs that place an undue “administrative burden” on program beneficiaries. In August, she noted that many agencies that already collect demographic data cannot effectively make use of that information yet.

“In some cases, data needed to answer a question or respond to an issue do not exist at all or currently only exist at a very low quantity,” OMB stated in an August report. “[In] other instances, federal program applicants have not traditionally been asked about demographic characteristics that are not necessary for deciding program eligibility in order to reduce the perception of discrimination . . . This is also another potent reminder that technical tools for data collection and protection must be deployed in combination with community understanding to advance equity.”

Maloney and Pressley said that in addition to better data collection, agencies must develop tools to assess how initiatives actually make an impact in terms of providing more equitable outcomes.

“As President Biden’s executive order recognizes, meaningful progress toward equity requires the use of assessment tools to analyze the impact of agencies’ policies and programs on minority and underserved communities,” they wrote. “Equity assessments have been used to understand how barriers to equity drive disparate outcomes in these communities. These tools have also been used to identify programs and policies that have successfully closed equity gaps and addressed remaining obstacles.”

They also continued to stress the need for ongoing outreach to civil rights organizations and other local nonprofits as outlined in the executive order.

“The more community members are engaged in the administration of agency programs and policies, the more likely it is that all voices will be heard as part of equitable decision-making across the federal government,” Maloney and Pressley wrote. “[Addressing] systemic racism across all functions of the federal government must be an urgent priority. To do so effectively, agencies must first collect the required data, conduct in-depth analyses and engage with stakeholders.”